Tomorrow is Yom Kippur. (Next week will start Sukkot, then Simchat Torah, and then the holidays will be done… Until Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and so forth.)
Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement, “because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins.” (Leviticus 16:30). A solemn and hallowed day, we spend it in worship, in prayer, in meditation, and in study, knowing that God “is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Sometimes, questions of forgiveness make me feel like a little kid. Why do you say, “I’m sorry”? Because your mother told you to, and you know that if you don’t recite those words, you won’t get any dessert? Sometimes, I wonder whether we’ve gotten so good at saying it “like you mean it” that we’ve forgotten how to mean it anymore?
Yet, “say ‘I’m sorry’; say it like you mean it” holds a bit of truth. As adults, we apologize for the sake of the relationship, such as it is, even if that relationship remains rocky. But even if I can’t apologize (e.g., because the person I wronged has died), or even he won’t accept my apology, I still need to realize the wrong I’ve done and set my life on a better course. And if I am wronged, even if the person who wronged me won’t apologize, I still need to forgive him.
I still need to forgive, if for no other reason than because God has forgiven me. (Colossians 3:13)
But there is a deeper reason as well. Forgiveness is the opposite of bitterness. When someone wrongs me, I can choose to dwell on the hurt and anger that caused, or I can forgive. When I dwell on the hurt and anger, bitterness begins to control who I am, at a primal, gut level. But when I forgive, that memory of the past no longer evokes those bitter feelings of hurt and anger, which allows me to think straight again. I can keep the memory, but without letting the past control me.
(This is why we say that you ought to forgive a thief, but that doesn’t mean you should ask him to housesit for you.)
Forgiveness is a unilateral act. The person who wronged you does not need to repent or apologize, or to acknowledge that he hurt you. You don’t even need to know who he is. We like to believe the opposite, because we allow our anger to control us. We confuse anger with justice— They are not the same thing, and often are at odds with each other. Just as you can be angry at a just outcome, you can forgive even without justice having been done.
Osama bin Laden is dead, and many in the US still nurse their anger over 9/11— What better proof that our bitterness is not satisfied by justice?
Many here refuse to forgive the US—and themselves—for the US’s history of anti-black racism—never mind slavery of the Native Peoples, anti-Irish racism, anti-Jewish racism, anti-Arab racism, and anti-Mexican racism. And this bitterness ironically causes even new flavors of racism. Oy! Race itself is an illusion.
Many Christians still call the Jews “Christ-killers”—if not in those words, then at least in their associations and theologies—even though the Sadducees have been dead for over 1900 years, and modern Judaism is based on the same values that Jesus himself taught.
And many Jews hate the Christians, because of Constantine, because of the Crusades, because of Hitler, because they don’t like being called “Christ-killers,” because too many Christians still believe Jews have devil-horns growing out of their heads. (And no, sadly, I’m not exaggerating.)
It’s all so stupid.
Saddest of all, bitterness keeps us from seeing the world through the eyes of others. And that makes it impossible for us to help them, even a little.
Every minute we waste being angry at the world is a minute we cannot make the world a better place.
P.S. I ripped off the title of this blog post from the film The Power of Forgiveness (which I totally recommend, and which you can watch on Netflix), produced in part by the Fetzer Institute’s Campaign for Love and Forgiveness.